As a native Upstate New York resident, I learned how to drive in the snow almost as soon as I learned how to drive. It wasn’t an optional experience. I learned how to drive in the snow and ice, whether I was driving standard or automatic transmissions, and before they had ABS on every car. This week, with the snowstorm here on the East Coast, I not only got to drag out all my snow driving skills, but had the opportunity to teach them also to my kids. Since this seems to be a challenge area for many people, here’s my best advice.
1. If you have been putting off buying new tires, consider doing it sooner than later. Driving on snow and ice involves having decent traction, and the better treads you have, the better. When I grew up, most people even had a special set of “Snow Tires” they put on the car every fall. While this isn’t as important in Philadelphia or Washington DC as it is in Buffalo or Vermont, it’s also further evidence that having tires with low treads ups your chances for an accident substantially when driving in adverse conditions.
2. Speed is not your friend. In fact, when driving in snowy and icy conditions, going slowly and leaving decent distance between your car and the one in front of you is critical. I can’t tell you how many people I saw the other day, even in cars meant for snow, like 4WD SUV’s, that were still getting into trouble for going too fast or simply riding up on the bumper of other vehicles, assuming their car was invincible. These are the folks spending the next few days in a rental, as their car gets fixed at the collision shop.
3. Hills, especially downhill slopes, will require you to brake early, consistently and be prepared to swerve on the shoulder if necessary. Even following all these rules, I was travelling at a cautious speed down a hill near home, and started to brake. Unfortunately, the road under the snow was icy, and my tires weren’t gripping, causing me to make a turn to a small road to the right to avoid skating into the intersection. Making sure you have an exit strategy by staying in the slow lane could save you time, money and injury. It saved me.
4. Intersections are universally icy, especially if temperatures are below freezing, but get markedly worse when the temperature is lower than 25 degrees. Between melting snow and ice off of cars, and the cars sitting there for more than a few moments, snow at intersections has a tendency to melt, freeze, remelt and refreeze, making it difficult to pull out of a secondary road onto a main road without risking slipping and sliding like a hockey player. Making sure you give all cars adequate warning, using turn signals, and taking it slow rather than trying to accelerate too quickly to get into a spot on the main road is the best way to handle it. You may feel like a Grandma driving this way, but you’ll stay safe.
5. Practice. On weekends, corporate and school parking lots are great for this- as well as smaller neighborhood type roads. Practice driving, stopping suddenly, steering out of a slide, and getting used to the feel of the “chatter” of ABS brakes while driving in the snow. By getting used to the feel of driving and sliding, you will take the fear out of it, and then avoid panicking if you have a problem driving during an actual snowstorm. (We used to actually try to slide and do “donuts” in parking lots, but ABS has taken the fun out of this winter sport for kids in the north.)
6. If your car has problems going up hills in good weather, think about NOT driving in the snow at all. Unless its absolutely necessary, if your car doesn’t handle hills and slopes without groaning in good weather, snow will only make the problem worse. I can’t tell you how many little cars, like my son’s Prius, were stuck on the side of the road, unable to go up hill or down in the rapidly falling snow. It was made worse by these cars then stopping traffic, and aggravating the problem for other little cars trying to get through. Sometimes it’s better to just not go out, than go out and get stuck, or worse, have a crash.
7. If you know it might snow, pack a few essentials in your car. Make sure you have a snow brush and ice scraper. Have extra windshield wiper fluid in your car. Consider a can of windshield de-icer for your emergency kit. Have a blanket, and keep your cell phone charged and/or have a back up battery for your phone in the car. I also often have
8. Snow Gear to Consider Keeping in the car: If you have to park outside, consider a snow and ice windshield cover. For $6.99, this baby can save you some serious time and heartache. There are little traction mats like these which can help get you or someone stuck out of trouble in no time flat. (Some people swear kitty litter works as well, but I’d hate to have to clean that up later on.) For deep snow, I also like putting the snow broom in the car- it deals with deep snow in just a few seconds. And of course, having reusable or even disposable emergency heat packs are fantastic, and can even help warm up your gloves or any part of you that might need it. An extra pair of gloves, to keep you warm after you’ve de-iced your windshield wipers, will always be a great idea.
Even if you think you know how to drive in the snow, others who don’t will cause you problems. A typically 20 minute drive took me 3 and a half hours on Tuesday, mostly because other drivers were having problems related to not knowing how to drive in the snow, as well as everyone trying to “beat” the snow by leaving all at once, making it difficult for both plows and emergency vehicles to get through.
Don’t be part of the problem- stay safe, and practice handling the snow and ice now that we have it, and help teens practice as well. A little bit of practice goes a long way, and don’t forget to get some in before the winter leaves for good. Otherwise, we’re all going to have this same problem the next time it snows, next week or next year.